As Brad Plumer noted in response to a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the Great Recession has shredded many mid-wage jobs, replacing them with lower-wage ones. Catherine Rampell reports that inflation-adjusted median household income has slipped over 7 percent since December 2007 (and the median income then, adjusted for inflation, was only a tiny bit higher than the same figure for January 2000). According to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, median weekly earnings for individuals 25 and older have not kept track with inflation over the past decade. With those statistics, it’s hard to say that the U.S. economy’s principal problem is too few workers demanding too high a rate of compensation.
We can see this employment stagnation in both high-tech and “low-skill” fields. A report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) on guest workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) fields reveals some interesting trends. According to the EPI, computer and IT salaries have, when adjusted for inflation, remained more or less flat since 2000, and the number of guest workers in IT fields has grown considerably. EPI’s numbers suggest that guest workers could make up between a third and a half of all new IT jobholders.
Yet the increasing prevalence of guest workers in IT fields might not be due to a lack of U.S. talent for or interest in technology. EPI finds that half of the STEM graduates from U.S. colleges do not end up working in STEM fields, and every year U.S. colleges graduate 50 percent more people in computer science, information science, and engineering than there are new jobs available in these fields. The EPI report raises questions about how much the influx of high-tech guest workers has depressed wages in these fields and made it harder for U.S. workers to find employment in them. If the U.S. wants to maintain a leading edge in technology, it might seem prudent to ensure that native-born citizens and permanent-resident immigrants are drawn to and can work in these fields.
While wages for high-tech guest workers have stagnated, wages in many other parts of the work force have fallen. So-called low-skill workers have been especially hard hit. The unemployment rate for Americans without a high-school diploma is, as of April 2013, 11.4 percent. In 2007 it was around 7 percent. The labor-force-participation rate for this group has also fallen. The employment-population ratio (the percentage of working-age individuals who are employed) for Americans without a high-school diploma slipped from 43.3 in 2007 to 39.9 in April 2013. High-school graduates without any college have also seen a decline in employment. Their unemployment rate has skyrocketed since 2007 (from 4.4 percent in 2007 to 7.2 percent in April 2013) and their employment-population ratio has fallen from 62.8 in 2007 to 54.5 in April 2013. So barely more than half of working-age high-school graduates with no college experience are actually working.
Income tells an even grimmer story. Between 2003 and 2012, the median weekly earnings of someone without a high-school diploma, when adjusted for inflation, fell by almost 5 percent. The median weekly earnings of high-school graduates fell by almost 6 percent, and those of Americans as a whole fell by about 1 percent.
After Mitt Romney’s defeat in November 2012, many on the right, including Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), came to the conclusion that the Republican party needed to become a party of middle-class restoration, economic opportunity, and upward mobility. This conclusion has been complemented by a growing recognition that the stagnation of opportunity and the undermining of the middle class pose serious threats to the future of small-government conservatism.
If that is the case, a guest-worker program could cause big problems for the GOP. Many of the institutions that would be central for administering this program are premised on the notion of bureaucratic control of the free market. The regulatory structure of a guest-worker program, combined with birthright citizenship, could place millions more in legal and cultural gray areas. And the expansion of such programs could put further pressure on the incomes and employment prospects of both native-born citizens and permanent residents. This guest-worker bill could at once deter Americans from working in the fields of the future and make life even harder for those at the economic margins. The precise details of the Gang of Eight’s guest-worker program clearly need more explication, but there might also be a broader theoretical difficulty with a Republican embrace of it.
At its very inception, the GOP championed the marriage of citizenship and labor. Abraham Lincoln’s vision of the Union was one where the labor force was composed of free citizens working to better themselves and their communities. In his speech at Independence Hall on Washington’s birthday in 1861, President-elect Lincoln declared that one of the promises of the Declaration of Independence was “that all should have an equal chance.” One of the premises of a guest-worker program is that all do not have an equal chance: Some workers will be welcomed for their labor but will never be offered a chance at citizenship. These workers will be limited by government in their employment prospects and, due to their status as not-entirely-accepted guests, will have a limited ability to negotiate the marketplace in a fair and free manner. This distortion of the market for labor could have major negative implications for citizens and immigrants alike.
As an electoral matter, small government seems most sustainable in an era of transparent regulations, economic opportunity, and popular prosperity. The guest-worker program envisioned by the Gang of Eight may undermine all three aims. But it also might challenge a principle deeper than electoral politics. America has done best when its citizens have recognized that they are all in the same national boat together — where no labor is too mean for a citizen, where wealth cannot collude with government to institute a petty tyranny, and where the opportunities of a free market and a free society are open to all rightfully in the body politic. By superseding these principles, the proposed guest-worker program could violate both republican and Republican ideals.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.